Reworking the Syllabus

syallbus_graphicThe syllabus is an important document both for faculty and for the students. It’s often the first communication you have with the students. It contains all important information students need to know to be successful in the class. However, it is also typically the least interesting document you provide the students with over the course of class. It usually involves numerous pages chock full of information that all looks the same at first glance. Students don’t want to have to work that hard to find the information. Subsequently, the syllabus ends up in some corner of their room, car or bag only to never be seen again. As a faculty member, you are left with a constant stream of questions that could be easily answered by the syllabus.

The easy fix for this is to make your syllabus a more interesting and more useable document that students want to hang on to because they clearly see its value. You should highlight areas that are very important like your contact info and assignment submission guidelines. Show information visually as well as in written format. Add imagery that better explains what the class is about. The main goal should be to make a student excited to be in your class as well as to better communicate requirements and expectations to the students. If a student sees the value of your syllabus, they will hang on to it and, more importantly, they will remember that the information they need is in there.

It’s not that hard to incorporate simple elements into the document to make it work better for you and your students. Here are some simple things you can do to make your syllabus more effective:

  • Show information visually. Depending on where you teach, your students may have low reading and math comprehension. To better assist them in understanding elements like how their grade breaks down for the semester or how their assignment grade breaks down, you should consider showing the information in pie graph format to better communicate what missing an assignment or not formatting make their assignment means to their grade. They can quickly and easily see what their choices mean for their grade in a manner that is far more meaningful to them than just a number.
  • Add images. Many students sign up for class either because they have to or because someone told them to. They may not know or understand what the course is about. By adding images to your syllabus, you start to show your personality and you give them a better idea visually what the course is about. A picture really can say a thousand words in a way words often do not.
  • Consider using boxes or other shapes to separate information. There are certain pieces of information that your students most commonly ask about and are the most important to know. By using boxes, you quickly demonstrate that this information is more important than the rest. Everything is important, but students shouldn’t have to look hard for the things they will need most often and are most important to them. By putting the information in box, it signals to the students that it’s important and they need to pay attention.
  • Use icons. Icons, like a letter for email, are great ways to provide visual signals to students. They can be helpful on the schedule to identify when assignments are due or signal contact information. Just make sure they are understandable to the students.
  • Chunk information. Make sure that everything on a certain aspect is together on the page. For example, put all grading information on one page for easy reference. As part of this, make sure to have clearly defined headers that a student can easily identify when scanning the document to locate information.
  • Put your personality into the look and feel. The syllabus is your first communication with the students and you want it to be a positive one. By putting some personal touches on your syllabus, you help separate yourself from three or four other faculty members the student interacts with during the week. It helps them remember who you are and what the course is about. Don’t go crazy by putting too many colors or fonts, but find subtle ways to distinguish your class from all the others.
  • Don’t forget required information. All colleges require certain elements in your syllabus. You can check to find out what these are with the head of your department. These are often important policies that the students may or may not be aware of such as policies for students with disabilities.

Getting Started
This may seem a daunting task especially if you do not have a design background. However, there are a number of options depending on your skill set. Templates can help you get started and make the task far easier.

  • Microsoft Word
    • Available for Mac and PC
    • Templates available – Newsletter templates work best
    • You probably already know how to use
  • Microsoft Publisher
    • Only available for PCs
    • Allows for more flexibility in layouts
    • Templates are available – Again, newsletter templates work best
  • Pages for Mac
    • Mac specific
    • Offers templates
    • Fairly easy-to-use
    • Make get a free trial, but typically have to purchase separately
  • InDesign
    • Requires advanced skills
    • Similar to Publisher but with more features and more control

Syllabus Presentation
Download a Guide for Creating Your Syllabus –  land_presentation

Syllabus Examples
Below I have provided my syllabus for download as well as some other syllabi I found online that were very well designed.

Download my Syllabus – art122_syllabus_fall13
Syllabus by Tona Hangen for History Course – 112Spr13v1
Syllabus by Tona Hangen for History Course – 112RevisedSpr12
Syllabus by Dr. Susan Sheridan for ANTH 30101 – syllabus_example3
Syllabus by Vanessa Alander for Composition Course – syllabus_example4
Syllabus by Vanessa Alander for ENDI1450 – Syllabus_Fall_2011


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